RIORI Vol 3, Installment 73: Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” (2012)

The Players…

Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Olga Kurylenko, and Woody Harrelson, with Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish and Linda Bright Clay (if you squint just right you might spy the venerable Harry Dean Stanton, too).

The Story…

The hardest part about writing a story is the first page. Struggling scenarist Marty’s been experiencing this trouble for months, due to both writer’s block and hangovers. One my preclude the other.

Marty’s wingnut pal Billy is willing to help his wingman. Bill’s big on ideas, low on cash, dotty in the head and quite absent of scruples. The best gig this loser has isn’t wielding a pen but a dognapping scheme on the side. Scour the parks, make a mark and wait. His benefactor Hans has the connections (and if you can’t trust a guy named Hans, who can you?).

Then Billy makes the wrong connection; absconding with a psycho mobster’s prize shih tzu. Things just go into the supper bowl from there on.

Think this action’ll help Marty’s floundering script? If you have to ask, it’s obvious you’re not a dog person.

The Rant…

This one may ramble, ever moreso that usual. I hope your patience will be rewarded. I got fresh ginger snaps baking right now.

So. Where would black comedy be without Tarantino today?

Please flip open your textbooks to the chapter on mimicry and tribute, please.

I’ve gone on record that I think Tarantino is a hack, both here at RIORI and at several bars where I can clearly illustrate only with words what the bottom of a bottle of Bud looks like right before it gets impacted into your cheek. Folks got strong opinions about the man’s work. I do too, so start crushing your spent beer cans into hockey pucks now. I’m just about getting used to the outcome.

Still, I must admit he’s a clever, entertaining hack. Plenty of aspiring Hollywood scribes out there are still mixing their instant Ramen with their Tide at the laundromat. Tarantino did his salt mine service, as well as scrutinizing the old school movie sh*t that spoke to his inner muse. And it’s a damn good thing for him that Colombus, Ohio’s regular movie-going populace never listened to the Meters or saw Scream, Blacula Scream! Hence the Emoji Movie. Want fries with that? Of course we can super-size it. What’s a library?

*blogger scrubs bile from feet, wipes mouth*

Koff. Sorry there. Been a while.

So Q’s a big deal, his twitchy craft drawing thousands to the multiplex. I don’t mind that; it’s perfectly okay to have a favorite filmmaker. Yours creates worlds that speak to you, entertain you, maybe titillate you, with or without the red drape over the lamp. Taratino creates worlds all right, mostly violent, twisted and sometimes pervy worlds. A lot of his flicks are the equivalent of slowing highway traffic to catch a look at the car crash in the oncoming lane (and please quit doing that. I’m in a hurry and Shake Shack is only open so long).

But here is where I take issue with the man’s movies. When I call him a hack I don’t mean in the traditional, pejorative sense. To clarify, in Hollywood parlance a “hack” is a writer that churns out scripts for cash rather than creative ends, and integrity is a four-letter word. The term can be applied to writers in general, but the insult holds a lot of traction in Hollywood, probably due the large imbalance between good movies and poor excuses for poor excuses (every Alien vs Predator flick springs immediately to mind.) There’s a holy host of hacks out there in Tinsel Town pounding keyboards for a paycheck first with nary a muse to be seen. Unless you count the paycheck. I would.

Before I further clarify Q’s style of scribbling in relation to hackiness, I’m gonna cite an ideal punching bag when it comes to punch up. This screenwriter has been almost solely responsible for a wide smattering of unsatisfying, mediocre pap polluting silver screens as far away as Neptune. This odious creature came to my attention/rekindled my dislike courtesy of a blurb from The AV Club, so if you take issue with what I’m about to say, blame (or bless) Alex McLevy.

This scenarist isn’t know for black comedy, nor for winking pop culture splash, dash and thrash either. However he has had a dripping paw in many, many movies over the past 20 years that were—how shall we say this gently—total sh*t. From Batman & Robin to the recent release and would-be Stephen King franchise The Dark Tower that’s gone all pear-shaped. His scripts are crapola, and his cachet mostly rides on the Oscar he got for A Beautiful Mind, which won Best Pic for 2001. I could hem and haw, but to get the meat of the matter (as well as desperately keeping on topic) we must understand the difference between being a hack out of of creative naiveté and a need to keep the wallet full.

I don’t think Q’s of the former. I think Akiva Goldsman is. And there is a point to all of this schpiel about black comedy and hackery. There is.

Yeah. So Goldsman. Yikes. Him. You betcha. The master of spinning the Erle Stanley Gardner plot wheel. The resident epitome of hack writing. I’ll save the laundry list of his cinematic crimes for some other time. Not the point here. I’m gonna focus on that statue he finagled out of the dotty, old Academy; the one for Beautiful Mind‘s script. Again, Ron Howard’s feather-in-the-cap was a good movie. The acting was sterling (big ups to Paul Bettany and well-deserved bow to Jennifer Connolly. Ed Harris was along for the ride, too. Nuff said). Goldsman’s typing was well done.

(There’s a “but” coming.)

But, our hero scribe took a lot of liberties with the story. Either out of Hollywood sweeting or smoothing some edges. Sure, seeing Russell Crowe as mentally unbalanced mathematician struggle through…everything made for some gripping drama. I’m not one to nitpick. Much. No more than your average touring funk band passing whoever’s number. But not long after watching Mind with my then-girlfriend (who thinks Connolly is the bee’s knees; her fave film is Labyrinth, and Bowie wouldn’t be kicked outta the bed for eating crackers, no way) was studying psychology foe school, and the chapter came up about aberrant behavior came to the fore. She was assigned to deconstruct a movie that portrayed a character with mental illness, preferably a biopic (EG: Girl, Interrupted, Awakenings, The King’s Speech, the aforementioned Mind and etc) and later sift through the actual history of the case file.

After being over my girl’s shoulder, I learned that Mind could’ve been an even better picture if Goldsman didn’t muddy the story with Hollywood claptrap.

Example: in the second act, Nash’s wife Alicia has all but had it with her damaged hubby. But her REDACTED eventually wins the day. In reality the woman kicks Nash out for him to wander the world, later divorcing him. He’s eventually let back into his home (sans children. The real life Nash’s had no children) but only as a boarder. For like 13 years. They ended up “dating” for the rest of their days, even though Nash had many breakdowns and only got proper medication 20 years after his first schizo episode.

Is that black comedy? Very. Roll the rock away from the cave black, but not funny. In light of this historical info I felt that Goldsman’s script was for lacking. Wait. Did I feel that way prior to reading the historical record? No. Afterwards? Kinda. Didn’t care for the sweeting, or the hoodwink across my eyes realizing the the story could’ve been even more affecting. But in hindsight—and in a very oblique way—Goldsman’s final draft was blackly funny. Perverted even. After watching Russell Crowe love and care for people who were REDACTED (not sorry for this. Folks complain about spoilers more than jock itch, including females) than his own hottie wife? Not funny, but black and indeed comic.

BTW, the whole REDACTED exchange scene? Fabrication, even beyond Hollywood. Then Goldsman wrote into the ground I, Robot, I Am Legend and Transformers: The Last Knight to mention a few (2 of which came under my scalpel here already. Shiver now). Why Hollywood commits so many millions of ducats to placate this scribe escapes me. Then again I voluntarily watched a pair of them and scrawled about it here, mostly under the effects of sodium pentathol and whiskey. Kidding. I don’t drink spirits anymore.

Um. It’s not all bile here. Really. Patience pays, like I’ve heard about how it’s at at the local hospital. Back to hackery:

Ultimately we now come back to Quentin. Another writer cum director that saved Hollywood from itself, with all its tired plots, derivative storylines, banal dialogue and less than hip soundtracks featuring the dulcet tones of Steve Winwood post-Spencer Davis and Warren Zevon post-Warren Zevon. Tarantino made his mark with verve and flash; snappy witticisms, films rife with pop culture nods as well as its satires, warped plot lines and casts of thousands of left-of-center minor soon to become major players again. That and Sam Jackson and lots of that good old-fashioned ultra-violence. But with cheeseburgers!

Sounds snippy, doesn’t it? However if you think about it though there’s a lot of truth going on there. So much that Q’s maiden voyage of soon to be superstar mayhem got the square peg/round hole treatment from director Scott. Romance failed to figure what he had his hands on then, him being such a flashy filmmaker. I’m not saying Tony Scott’s a bad director. I’m shouting it.

True, the gateway drug for some was Scott’s True Romance. A film directed by a man who should’ve never directed it (tho’ he did a good job) backed by a script the scribe should’ve directed (but his Hollywood eyeteeth had yet to shed) by Tarantino. True Romance illustrated keenly that the slick hand of Tony Scott only caressed this flick courtesy of the soft massage he smoothed over Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop 2 (like there were a lot of unanswered Axel-esque questions still stabbing at the firmament). From Tarantio’s demented pen it was a byzantine (surprise) crime caper good horribly right involving gangland heavies, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it plot twists, Val Kilmer as Elvis and comic books (surprise?). The plot revolves around wayward lovers Christian Slater and Patrica Arquette on the run from, basically, themselves. Theirs is just the quotation marks that bookend the wily antics of the supporting cast (big ups to Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. The “interrogation” scene was worth the asking price alone).

Q’s story was good, executed with much flash. Scott’s direction was stiff and an extension of how totally out of his element he was directing a madcap Taratino script. Mr Top Gun tried quite hard to make Romance an action film until the stitching showed. Understood, it was entertaining, but Romance didn’t really stick with you. You kinda forgot it a week later, like some carton of lo mein in the back of the fridge. You know, the carton that sprouted tentacles? Pass the soy sauce.

Hold it. Before I lambast Q some more and Scott quite less, let’s reheat this: what is black comedy? Well, we ain’t talking Richard Pryor here (but if you considered his act that supposition may be not that far removed). We’re basically talking about laughing at death. And crime. And infidelity. And any unpleasant subject that disrupts our typical happy moral existence. As far as movies and their stories go, Tarantino didn’t invent this subgenre. Making light of tragedy goes back to Shakespeare (e.g. Measure For Measure, The Taming Of The Shrew, Othello, etc), if not further.

*rifles through the Good Book*

Consider the tale of Christ’s passion. No, really. There’s a warped humor in that mythos. We have the alleged son of God as irritant to the status quo. Guys, you don’t need to have fealty to the emperor. He don’t care about you none anyway. Just be kind and compassionate to your neighbors and maybe we’ll all be better for it. Love is all you need, right Thomas?

Nope. Three nails, hung in the hot sun until you suffocate. Ugh. That spear sure stings, I’ll wager.

In the final act however JC rolls that rock away from the cave to the astonishment of his best buds and says, “Been there, done that. My Dad loves me and loves you all. But the next time you f*ckers see me you better jump.”

Kinda like that.

A good story, smeared with some rather ill-fitting concepts about how we’re supposed to get along but take great pleasure in not. Jesus playing poker with Death and rapping Him on the knuckles with a ruler. Bittersweet? Sure, but so is black comedy.

That’s been Q’s ace up his sleeve. He’s made silly of tragedy, to clever ends by the way. In his magnum opus Pulp Fiction as prime—if not seminal—example all the cards are on the table, smearing Taratino’s malign and prickly id for all the world to see, especially Middle America. How the Wolf cleans up the car. How Butch rescues Marcellus, considering the implements of destruction. How Mia responds to a shot to the heart. Stuff like that, and all of it black. Quite black. We’re talking charcoal here. Accidental shootings, sodomy and drug overdoses are decidedly unfunny. Unless played by the proper hand.

That’s the key: a smart scenarist that can wrap a chewy center around a delightful chocolate coating of irony and winking. I begrudging credit Q as quite adept at this feat. Such style has influenced countless “edgy” directors and writers in his wake. Some for the better, most for the snore. So much so that a holy host of filmmakers often get catch a bad case of the Tarantinos. Roger Avery, sometimes Guy Ritchie and maybe our guy on the chopping block, today’s hero Martin McDonagh. Sometimes it’s okay, the rest of the time it’s fanboy worship.

So how is black comedy supposed to work? Simple. Despite all the blood, guts and failed genital piercings, black comedy must be funny. Comedy is comedy. It can be a tough row to hoe. For all the dubious praise and credit I unloaded on Q, his influence is inescapable as well as earned. As well as winningly funny. Without his demented scripts we wouldn’t have entertaining flicks about murder and mayhem and all the chuckles they warrant like Doug Liman’s Go, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and (maybe, we’ll see) this week’s gonzo platter Seven Psychopaths. All were amusing, all were left-of-center, all were a gunshot wound buffet. Not bad for a pop culture Cuisinart filmmaker like Tarantino. I mean, for a hack.

So does my litany say that hackery and black comedy are intertwined somehow?

Maybe. All those non-linear, divergent plot threads often muddy already muddied, blood-stained, clogged with dead dog’s bodies waters.

Sorry. That might be a tad stony. Someone send up a flare…

Marty (Farrell) has a problem. Problems. He’s a Hollywood screenwriter, struggling with his latest story. Writer’s block. That’s one.

The other might be a drinking problem. Might be a two.

Or his pesky tagalong buddy Billy (Rockwell) who wants to offer his BFF writing advice, despite being unable to put a paragraph together without using profanity like quotation marks. Probably a third.

The aforementioned love affair with the bottle made Marty’s gritchy wife Kaya (Cornish) bail. Winking at a fourth.

Billy’s also a leech, unable to hold down any real job. All he really has going for him is this kooky dognapping scheme when where all goes well, he takes away a meager handful as his “benefactor” Hans (Walken) “reaps” the “rewards.” That’s way too many legit quotation marks. Definitely a fifth.

(You see where this is going, right?)

It all gets ugly when Billy nabs the wrong pooch. Crazed gangster-type Charlie’s (Harrelson) prized shih tzu Bonnie is a jewel in Hans’ crown and a bullet for Billy’s head. Naturlly a worried Billy pulls Marty into his demented circle. Quite the sixth.

At the end of several very long days, Marty finds himself along with Billy and Hans on the run from Charlie’s goons, malice on their minds and a mission to rescue Bonnie at all costs, guns at the ready. And still no damned script near done.

That’s seven. Quite a handful—fistful—of goofy problems for poor Marty. And all he wanted to do was finish the stupid script. If he gets out of this scrape it might make a helluva story…

Okay. This one is black. But not bleak. There is a difference.

First, let’s talk about Tarantino some more. Right, so I called him a hack. He is, and here’s why (but not really. My viewpoint gets rather blurry so cut me some slack): it’s a foregone conclusion that scenarists create scripts based on a few standards. I do the same here, but for free! You’ll be reimbursed somehow for your curious patience.

The standard as I call them are simple: create an entertaining story to be made into a movie, let your creative (if sometimes manic) muse channel your creative energy into the creation of said script to be the backbone of a good movie, and may your finished product may be able to elevate a humdrum movie into a machine that churns out the tickets.

I did not mention creative ego. I also did not mention placating said ego. A well-written, successful movie should be the scenarist’s final reward for hard work done. A nice, shiny statuette that looks dandy on the mantlepiece or the back of the guest bathroom’s toilet would be nice reward, too. The guest bathroom, not the statue. If you got a guest bathroom it prob’ means you have a nice house and maybe entertain a lot. Enjoy scooping out your guest’s “rainbow trout” floating in the bowl come Sunday. I am a very petty man.

Speaking of being petty, I find most of Q’s very entertaining films satisfying a very basal need. Namely his, and they also are myriad.

I call out Tarantino as a hack because almost all of his work contains not so very subtle but incredibly winking nod to his pet subjects. Namely almost outre film genres (EG: blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns, giallo, etc) riddle his “high concept” work. That and a lot of fanboy-ism. To put it simply, Q’s  a hack for not churning out scripts for money. He does it to stick a middle finger up the jocks’ assh*les that bullied his geeky ass so brutally in high school. That might actually be on record somewhere.

His films aren’t films. They’re revenge for a miscast youth. Spielberg’s flicks may be steeped in childhood tribulations and personal obsessions, but there’s precious little finger-waving in his output. Q’s a hack for willfully not pulling up his pants. He’s a show-off, and that’s why I begrudgingly like his output. As do every frat boy and wayward high school nerd who worn bondage pants in the 90s just after they eventually got hip to the Desendents.

It’s also why I often play the curious motorist, stuck in sluggish traffic and needing to know why I’m gonna be late to work. Again. Always on the scan for the flickering klaxons (that’s what they’re called) spinning on the squad car on the shoulder that has either pulled over a drunk driver, at the scene of twisted metal or just some poor schlub with a bum rear tire. I don’t really want to see this, but the rest of Middle American traffic patterns have already clogged the thruway and now I must plug in the Bluetooth and call in. That and check out the carnage. Not by choice, mind you. Really. And pay no mind to the dude behind the dude.

I don’t care for Tarantino’s work, and feel guilty for watching his pr*ck flap about for over two hours. And yet somehow dig it. I don’t suckle like most of his frat boy fans (despite me being a frat boy once), but I feel I’m pretty good at seeing Q still wears tighty-whiteies. That and I already had the entire Meters catalogue (on CD) in my collection pre-1993. I was band geek; leave it alone.

Sigh. That being said, Seven Psychopaths‘ director McDonagh caught a bad whiff of Tarantino’s spent typewriter ribbon (I’m willing to bet that the man still churns out his stories via typewriter; that would be the hip thing to do, right?). Martin’s script/direction sure felt like Tarantino wishful thinking to this dolt here.

I mean here:

Our story has it all regarding black comedy paired with hackery. And yet…and yet the final product did not suck. Sure. It was derivative Tarantino, maybe just a shadow. Still these days it’s tough to cut a film like Seven without echoing/nodding to Q’s fidgety output. Especially considering all the mockery was there. No clear hero? Check. Wonky, wandering premise? Double check. Eclectic, at-odds casting? Yeah. Christopher Walken? Need I say more?

So where’s the issue?

At the end of the day, none really. It’s been beaten to death that Tarantino’s scribblings have spawned an unearthly amount of hacks taking their swing at the next big Pulp Fiction maladjustment. However with Seven, and McDonagh in specific, I gotta reload this popgun and aim: it ain’t the notes, it’s how they’re played.

In order to be good at riffage, you need to be very good at your axe and have a keen ear to absorb what sounds exciting and timeless. Director McDonagh kinda, sorta succeeds here, if you count aping Tarantino success. Maybe so; mimicry and flattery and all dat gobbledygook. Still, Seven feels like McDonagh is banging away warped AC/DC chords in his parents garage. But then again, Angus Young’s licks weren’t terribly complex in the first place. And they sounded good. Still do. Now here:

Black comedy? Seven is more like a spoof. Like I said, all the elements are in place. A sensitive, whacko mobster after the guys who pilfered his prized pooch as Ponzi scheme? There’s a plot out of an ish of mid-90’s Mad magazine, and plays that way, too. Wait, hold on. That’s not quit true. Seven reminded me more of a descent into a demented version of a Hope/Crosby “road movie” from the 40s: Road To Singapore, Road To Rio, Road To Compton, etc (cue golf swing).

For those when need to know where that goofy analogy comes from, curl up by the fire, honeychile. Venerable comedian/actor Bob Hope and just as venerable singer/actor Bing Crosby teamed up together for a bunch of these road movies back in the 40s, where the plots were interchangeable and always involved our hapless heroes in wonky, silly circumstances simultaneously on the run from someone to somewhere to somewhere else. They were huge cash cows and virtual pop culture staple in the American movie-going congress. So much so that their oddball influence convinced some nabob at Colombia (namely one Warren Beatty who produced the mess) to do a tribute in the form of a little film failure called Ishtar. It also had its two leads (again Beatty with a confused Dustin Hoffman) on the run and plopped into terra incognitaDirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap it wasn’t. Sounds like the stuff Goldsman would thrive in, like pinworms in an infant’s stool.

That being said (no, not the pinworm sh*t), Seven in a way revives the old gold-hearted crooks on the lam schtick, only with a sticky black center. And again, it kinda works. As black comedies go, this is light (or perhaps light-hearted) on the black, and dished out with some strategy.

Like with Tarantino’s signature casting-style, Seven would be a truly derivative absurdist comedy without our motley crew. If you think about it—but not too much, mind you—Q’s capers would be pretty straightforward action-dramas if it weren’t for his irreverent characters. Well, Seven is no different. In fact, if it weren’t for its oddball cast, there really wouldn’t be much of a movie, just an overwrought Monty Python skit. Seven barely missed being tagged a bigger budget remake of Death;s dinner scene from The Meaning Of Life.

Think I might be crawling up mine own arse here. To quote Grail: “Get on with it!”

Right. The cast. Meat and potatoes. Our crew is comprised of unpleasant people, some less than others. It’s kinda odd. Our protag Marty played by an ornery, drunken Farrell is supposed to be the “hero.” Of what? He’s the lead, sure, but he’s also co-dependent, both on the bottle and Rockwell’s dopey Billy. How are we supposed to get behind such a wishy-washy lush?

Ah ha. That is the trick, the ace up McDonagh’s sleeve. What sets his cast apart—from Colin all the way to Woody—from the standard Tarantino cast of thousands is along with Marty no one here earns our sympathy. Hell, even Jules and Vince on their way to the first hit have a friendly rapport (French burgers and such), and even more telling—which also earns the audience’s sympathy for these two hoods if only for a nanosecond is the throwaway line: “Let’s get into character.” The hit is their job, not who they are, especially considering Jules “trying to be the shepherd” at movie’s end.

(Damn. My anus is really dark. And warm, too.)

Marty and company are all heels (save Hans, but only a little bit). These hoodlums are bleakly funny, but no one would ask them to house sit, lest they want the liquor cabinet ransacked, all their teenage daughter’s panties gone and landing on Etsy and the big plasma TV destroyed, screen impaled by an errant tennis racquet with one of Steffy’s thongs wrapped around the handle. Let alone dog sit.

I do paint a picture, don’t I? But really, for all of Marty’s addictions, Billy’s idiocy, Hans’ smarminess and Charlie’s hair-trigger there is no “getting into character.” It’s already ready already. All McDonagh gave us was a goofy script with a lot of one-liners/sight gags, the strategic plot twists and an eventual shootout, OK style in the final act. No more, no less.

So what was so enjoyable about Seven? Glad you asked and I appreciate your saintly patience. That thing above: strategy. Although it takes a bit to sink in/gel, you figure out across 100 minutes that Seven is indeed a spoof. A really subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, ham-fisted spoof, but a joke nonetheless. The over-arching strategy here? Seven thrives on meta-humor. Uber-meta-humor. We’re talking if you don’t get it, you’re not seeing it, not hearing it and/or totally ignorant to Tarantino’s stock in trade. And f*cking Pulp Fiction was sodden with meta humor (you ever notice that all the servers at Jack Rabbit Slim’s were dead celebrities from the 50s? No? You proved my point).

Seven is one big winking joke, but still a funny one. By the second act I found myself laughing out loud at our madcap cyphers. Not so much for the aforementioned wisecracks, pratfalls and very cold-blooded scenes involving blood, cancer and betrayal, but for the “I saw what you did there!” moments. Namely, I was laughing in spite of myself and the wit. Not sure if one precluded the other. Not matter, funny is funny and quietly mocking a subgenre—a rapidly hackneyed one—is, well, black. Spitting in Satan’s eye and the Dark One planting a smoldering cloven hoof into your anus. Which may explain my warmth.

Speaking of warmth, even though our gonzo cast aren’t the most original, fleshed-out folks, McDonagh found a way to keep these seamy miscreants enjoyable. Sympathy may be hard to come by with Marty and company, but our canny director created a very resourceful work-around to make us curious about these clods.

Farrell, Rockwell et al simply play themselves. Especially Walken and Harrelson, whose on screen charcters are virtually inseparable from who they are as “real people.” Got a heavy feeling a lot of this flick’s dialogue was off-the-cuff (particularly regarding Walken’s signature stammering delivery). You wanna little madcap dash with your heist scheme gone wrong? Make sh*t up as you go, Hell, worked on Who’s Line Is It Anyway? Minus the dognapping thins (but I’ll betcha Proops had a bit waiting in the wings).

Rockwell being Rockwell, virtually all his roles hang on him being a wordsmith at best and a motormouth at best. You think the story is demented? Well so is Rockwell’s Billy, Marty’s doofus foil and aide de camp. He’s the passive protag here, second fiddle. But ultimately Seven is his movie. Like how he stole the show in The Way Way Back (that installment is kicking around here somewhere), Rockwell comes across as naturally dumb, smartass, clueless and very cagey all at once. We understand his Billy to be the (potential) wild card, but like all his mouthiness, his role is shuck-and-jive. Namely, he’s naturally wonky so much he’s clever. Yeah, he was also the funniest.He’s a naturally funny actor. Not comedic, but funny. In the head funny. Don’t give Rockwell the keys after you’ve been drinking. It’ll only result in finding another one of Steffy’s thongs stashed in the glove box, stinking of formaldehyde.

Now Walken, like in all his roles, regardless of genre is unnaturally funny. I ain’t talking unintentionally funny, like how Hope made Bing look silly in Road To Cleveland (that might have been a real movie. Might). I’m screaming regardless of the movie, regardless of the role Walken is an ill-fitting suit. From The Dead Zone to Communion to True Romance to that nifty Fatboy Slim music video when Chris got to show off his dance moves the man is so endearingly awkward that you can’t help but grin whenever he’s on the screen. No different here in Seven. It’s always David Byrne-style “How did I get here?” with Walken, and even though his smarmy Hans endears enough clean sympathy here there’s always this undercurrent of “This is not my beautiful wife!” Even though Hans’ beautiful wife is well aware how he got here. If this makes no sense, big deal. You just gotta see Walken’s Hans to taste the meta.

Woody’s Charlie is so casual, which is what makes him scary. I’m not talking in-yo-face, absurdist, Mickey Knox scary. No. We all were introduced to Harrelson as the simple-minded hick Woody Boyd back on Cheers. His casual obliviousness endeared almost to idiot savant level on that classic sitcom populated by a lot of misguided barstool philosophers. Despite Cheers was ostensibly a comedy, the addition of Boyd to the cast invited a catch-you-off-guard kind of humorous character. Irreverent, sweet and like a lost puppy (let that go. It’s just a metaphor, dammit). Woody Boyd as Charlie is no different; not such a big leap. Charlie is Harrelson is Boyd: sweet, confused and child-like. Did I also mention psychotic? Yeah, he was a fun “villain.” Keep that gun clean, there.

All right, there’s a few takes on our usual suspects (Farrell was a tad wooden and the females were simply wallpaper. Hell, Cornish was barely paste). We gotta mention some technical aspects. It’s already agreed upon that Seven is a bottom-feeding, winking joke (and all the better for it), but some props must be given to McDonagh for tweaking a little mood-making for shots and staging and of course pacing. Despite the film’s trademark lack of trademarks the director has gotta spin some spin, right?

Uh-huh. Two major things about Seven‘s atmosphere crawling up on me. First, the lighting. Something about it, like it never quit. Very little shadow here, almost as if it played into McDonagh’s “You get it, right?” aesthetic about his take on black comedy and how he was blatantly ripping off/scewering Tarantino’s tropes. Don’t miss a thing here. Take the shade off the lamp, you’re naked now. It was another piece of the puzzle that made me giggle all the more when I felt I shouldn’t have. Sometimes covert clever can be more inviting than overt “clever.”

The second thing that swirled about my prickly movie-chewing muse watching Seven was its pacing. It was odd. Not dragging (although the final act kinda scraped bootheels in the sand), just odd. It kinda ping-ponged, but neither too fast nor too slow nor just right. It created some genuine unease in the watching that the characters’ predicament did decidedly did not. Some boat-rocking on par with eating that chili burrito before getting on the Coney Island Cyclone; something’s not gonna end well and it might require tossing away a shirt. You gotta create tension somehow in a film? Isn’t f*cking with the flow of the story a sharp way to do so? Works better than a knowing cast of goofballs contradicting one another’s motives. I’ll take what I can get.

Oh yeah. One more thing. Since Seven‘s story hinges on Marty’s failure to cut a script again and again and again, a question began to curl around brain stem halfway through the film. Was this all in Marty’s head? He’s a drunkard, restless and obsessed with finding a way through to completing the script. And everyone he deals with seems so wrote and reflecting the troublesome psychopaths he’s trying to rein in, would it not be too far a cry that his adventures are nothing more than his frustrated psyche trying to find some sort of escape? I mean, the final act wraps up in the desert, almost all Rimbaud-like (including Marty’s hair). If that were the case, wouldn’t all the black nightmare comedy, derivative characters (including the Quaker Billy suggested that also suggested his real life) and overall disconnected, dysfunctional, inebriated malaise he suffers over may bow down to a dreamlike existential crisis?

Hey. Wait. I don’t recall eating granola bars. Uh-oh.

That’s the weird thing about black comedy, hackery and meta-humor. Alone it’s all pretty straight forward. Piss on the devil’s tail and avoid the pitchfork. Write fast but not well and avoid critical scorn while laughing all the way to the bank. Joke about sh*t that was never intended to be funny until the right joker comes along. All a bit esoteric, sure, but no real mystery there.

The mystery arrives, and hopefully in an entertaining fashion, when you don’t know where the f*ck to start looking. And where to start looking first, if ever. Seven was like hearing the joke about the aristocrats. I’m getting offended, but please tell me where I’m going?

Good news. Wipe your brow. You’re not on the Road To Perdition.

Hang on. Was that an actual movie? Or was it Metacritic?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Yeah, it’s a canard in the best, middling Taratino sense, but also funny enough as an okay waste of a Saturday afternoon. Just don’t forget to curb yer dog.

Stray Observations…

  • “One cancer ward, comin’ up!” Worst. Cocktail. Ever.
  • “I don’t have a drinking problem! I just like drinking!” The first step.
  • Walken has got to be the best near-physical actor ever.
  • “He’s from Ireland.”
  • Zack. Hommage to Tom Waits’ first film role?
  • “Okay. You seem normal.”
  • Mac is one sick bastard, God bless him.
  • “A little.”
  • The scene with the wheelchair was some delicious tension.
  • “This dog is my Patti Hearst!” Cue cheesy poofs.
  • Farrell should’ve stuck with small films. Gives him more room to actually act than just be handsome.
  • That whole “one eye” bit? Yeah, that’s from a Tom Waits lyric. Full circle!
  • “Want some people, Billy?” “Why not?” Just say no.
  • NO SHOOTING. Enough, already.
  • “I wanna know what happens in the end!”

Next Installment…

Can Abby Breslin uncover the pseudo-mystery of who her mom really is? Definitely, Maybe, kinda like what the blue stripe sometimes says. And how Dad may snivel.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 68: Frank Oz’ “The Stepford Wives” (2004)

The Players…

Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Roger Bart, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Walken and Glenn Close, with Faith Hill for some reason.

The Story…

After power player, big deal TV exec Joanna suffers a nervous breakdown (as well as getting “let go”), she and her hubs Walt decide to get away from it all. Leave the Big City for the quaint suburbs, get away from the scramble of urban chaos.

Walt found an ideal place. A subdivision in Stepford, CT, far enough away from what ails Joanna. A nice place, populated by nice people. Especially the resident women whom are quite nice.

Very nice, in fact.

Very nice.

Joanna’s scared by this.

Very scared.

The Rant…

Let’s, you and me, talk about feminism.

*collective groans*

Now don’t collectively groan. The thing ain’t always about Gloria Steinem, unshaved armpits and Gloria Steinem’s unshaved armpits. Really. Overplaying my hand outright, I was the only male in my college’s Feminist Collective.

Why? Uh-oh, a story. Remember where you are. I get to editorialize from three to infinite paragraphs alluding ever so slightly to this week’s film proper, and you gratefully accept the bitegaurd and smile through your tears. Okay. Much thanks. Now into the pits. So to speak.

Back in school I was a philosophy wonk. Shocker. I attended so many of such classes I earned a minor in the field. Shocker. I swamped my brain learning about how others thought and felt. Figured if I gleaned onto enough smarter people than me, their thoughts might bring about some scent of enlightenment.

Well, nope. I just learned how jerky people could be. Folks who signed up for either a quick, nice, subjective grade or an opportunity to spew bile and generate fear and trembling. I did both.


I was the eldest of three children. Me the son buffeted by two younger sisters. I was and still am courteous enough to lower the toilet seat, even though I live alone now. Don’t ask. I’ll just shrug. But that being said, with Tweedldumb and Tweedledumber being at my hip, I was in the prime position to get exposed to all the trials girls had to deal with in our polite society. Cutting to the chase, I had to  instruct my middle sis how to use a tampon from the other side of the bathroom door against her squealing in embarrassment. Against my squealing in embarrassment. Just make sure the string hangs out.

Too much? Then you never had two sisters. Don’t get me started on the proper way to shave the legs. I was then learning how to not chop up my face. One would assume I learned something from that other than Cottonelle tabs make for the best impromptu bandages.

I’ll stop now.

Back to this Feminist Collective. I took this women’s studies class as part of the minor and as partly out of curiosity. I knew a lot about the male psyche already, and after reading wads of Sartre and hearing about his philosopher non-wife Simone de Beauvoir, I figured I’d set a toe in the deep end of the pool. The class was pretty cool. Not surprising, feminist philosophy was quite different than the overwhelmingly male schools of thought. That and a lot more political/steeped in social commentary. Makes sense. “The second sex” had gotten the short shrift in…well almost everything when it came to deconstructing social hierarchies, mores and what it means to be…you. The “you” in that case were the dozens of young women who had signed on. I was, like, one of four guys in the class. Got the feeling the other three were just fulfilling a credit. Just.

Save one guy. Memory is lost on me what his name was, but he was a real piece of work. Quite the provocateur. I wasn’t sure if his blatant chauvinism was genuine or he just liked stirring the soup. Either way his endless prattle did evil wonders in generating discourse. Well, rancor would be a more apt term. God, he used to get the class so riled with his snottiness; his self-rightoeus notions about how women thought and how women did and maybe he just could never score a date without a handy-dandy chloroform soaked hankie at the ready. At any rate, his comments were oddly well thought out, albeit sub-50s idea of who goes where. He may have made some blatantly sexist comments about man and God and law, but he was articulate. Actually, as my daughter is wont to say, “cringey” is a better term. He baited all the “serious” feminists in the class (including the prof) into raving loons. Well-meaning, dedicated loons, almost confirming his accusations. When he got going, I kept quiet, rolled my eyes, grew bored and heard my tuition going down the drain. Still a cool class, though, which led to this whole Feminist Collective thing and how I ended up being the only male member (get it?) of the group.

I was that enthused by the class, and if only to thumb my nose at the guy’s ancient and obnoxious views that cluttered the class I signed on to the professor’s roster of her idea of a casual klatch of like-minded casual feminists. Just to hang out, discuss philosophy and go to relevant performances like readings, “happenings” and concert dates. Happenings like the Take Back The Night rally, promoting rape awareness and the occasional Ani DiFranco club date. That was the time that I really felt part of the group and not some anomaly. Namely, not chasing well-educated tail.

The Collective wasn’t a large group. The class had like almost 40 students. Our mere think tank had like a dozen members, and me the rogue monkey in tow. But me and the females got on well, shared ideas freely and got well-caffinated often. That was status quo at the DiFranco gig we travelled to (with the prof along to make it legit. She scored the tickets). The major topic of conversation wasn’t de Beauvoir or how to properly pronounce her name. It was “that guy.” He was a dope, a pig, a disruption. I defended him as best I could. Poorly.

Now I ain’t saying I agreed with his palsied, hidebound barbs. I am saying he offered a tonic to the all to often heady tones that bubble up in any college philo class, feminist or otherwise. My worthy vagina-owning constituents didn’t really agree. He was a dope, a pig, a disruption. All true, but he did have the right to speak his crude mind. It made for lively class discussion. When he’d shut his trap.

They suffered my treason well, and laughed at me. Hard to not be humble as a guy when poked at by very non-guys. I still argued the value of his discourse. I was outnumbered, and their flak almost, almost justified my argument. Their vitriol came perilously close to confirming the squirmy worm’s accusations, and here the sole male in a Feminist Collective I was automatically outnumbered and very, very wrong. Still an interloper with fellow classmates for a full semester. Still a guy. By proxy, I couldn’t properly absorb the women’s outrage, nor could they like the cut of my jib.

DiFranco eventually took the stage. And all went away, seemingly forgiving.

But is that the trick? Regarding the eternal “battle of the sexes” was I off the mark passively defending the dork’s views, or was I just stuck with my XY chromosome, inherently sympathetic to the “first sex?” It was the whole “nature vs nurture” argument, despite me ultimately plopping myself into a group of educated, driven females out of curiosity. When you think about it, twenty years on it sounds like naivety and Fail.

Then again, it kinda now jibes with the subversive message of Oz’ adaptation into film for an umpteenth time Ira Levin’s classic cautionary/feminist tale of subservient women serving dismissive men their every want and need no matter how petty or idful. Did I really tag along for enlightenment, or did I arrive with a notion of impressed intelligent women with my gumption?

Maybe a bit of both. I’m a guy. We have that genetic imperative we’re almost always trying to suppress. We want to understand, even empathize with the other, but then again we refer to women as “the other” so that’s a strike. This disconnect between the sexes, be it philosophical, domestic or genetic creates all sorts of delicious tension. It’s based on the unknown, the misunderstood. The perceived understood.

Guys want to assume/know what “the other” is thinking. Why? Talk truth guys, disregarding the DiFranco gig (which was great, BTW), we all wanna know what they want so that they may know what we want. In simpler terms, it goes like this: a woman wants a man to satisfy her every want and need. A man wanys every woman to satisfy his one want and need.

No matter how much I took away from that class and my naive involvement in Syracuse University’s short-lived Feminist Collective, no matter how much I marched in Take Back The Night, no matter how much I debated Adrienne Rich’s bilious screeds I’m still a male. In hindsight I was “passing.” Here’s the ugly truth: most men are passing (again: in order to try and understand the fairer sex as a means to sample real sex. Sorry. Cat’s outta the bag. With or without a first pressing of Not A Pretty Girl on hand.

That piggy guy may have been piggy, but at least he was honest. At least within his ancient male sense of entitlement. But truth be told, all guys no matter how (weakly) enlightened have that churning to keep at bay. And we’re not talking about the baffling, signature morning wood phenom. We’re talking about convincing female to what we guys are all screaming about.

Namely, crude and honest, park it.

Maybe somewhere near Stepford, CT…

Being a career climber can get exhausting, Especially when you’re a first tier, go-getter, cast iron bitch like Joanna Eberhart (Kidman). Her high-ranking cachet of money-making TV producer has worked well for seasons, indicated by the cracks at the corners of her eyes. Her eager fall season plans of plenty of “reality shows” wrestling with the age-old “battle of the sexes” dynamic. It’s a formula that works well, until it doesn’t. And when it eventually doesn’t epically, Joanna gets let go and she let’s go. Hence all the screaming.

Her husband Walter (Broderick), kind nebbish that he is decides to scoop up Joanna and their family to relocate to Connecticut. To get out of the City, leave their broken, exhaustive urban lifestyle behind. Quaint suburbia awaits, the best outlet.

Joanna ain’t quite cool with this. The suburbs? Well-groomed lawns and bake sales? Nuh-uh. But Walter has spoken and Joanna needs to decompress, spend time with her alienated family, soak up some sun. Get her proverbial sh*t together. And Stepford’s welcome wagon is only so gracious to help.

The wagoneer is Claire Wellington (Close), so friendly and squeaky clean as she. She assures the new family that they’ll fit right in with such cheer it’s not so much disarming as disabling. She assures the wounded Joanna will love it here, with Stepford’s well-groomed lawns and bake sales. Every step’s a yes here in Stepford.

That gets to Joanna, as well as Walter. Opposite ends of the spectrum, though. Joanna meets and greets with the local wives, and all of them a very nice. Vacant, subservient and kinda dumb, but very nice all the same. As well as all competing in the World Series of Barbie look-alike contests.

This ain’t Joanna’s scene. Neither is it Bobbi’s (Midler), a bawdy writer who’s quick to take Joanna’s elbow and warn her about the eerie kindness that oozes from these willing voidoids. Not is all that it seems here in Stepford she warns. It always feels like inches away from taking the Kool-Aid the women folk, and that clandestine Men’s Club on the hill bids ill will to any female with a working brain.

For Stepford’s husbands this sounds like an ideal place to hang. Walter, too. The division between the sexes is cut in stone here.

Good thing strung out Joanna packed her jackhammer…

Another movie, another 21st Century remake. How novel and yawn.

I might have mentioned this before here, but with the blatant proliferation of movie remakes, reboots sequels and prequels mostly becoming swift moneymakers in our new dawn (a flying in the face of a generation raised on the Internet, all the knowledge in the world custom delivered to your iPhone) that present impatient audiences are so potentially informed and so much more uniformed, only pursuing data that sates their ADD FaceBook ego, that Hollywood has been swift to tap the ignorance of the Information Generation to smack ’em upside the jaw with weak scripts and derivative acting to invite movie gold. Did you know that Gone In Sixty Seconds was a remake? Neither did you.

I think I might have mentioned that before.

Anyway, I’ll reel it in. This version of The Stepford Wives is another in a long line of remakes and reinterpretations of Ira Levin’s seminal novel about crushing feminism in general and women in specific outright. The original 1975 (yes, they did have movies then pre-Netflix) version was a chilling, harrowing deconstruction of both chained-to-the-stove and it-can’t-happen-here. The film was about gender roles, slavery and Katherine Ross getting shared sh*tless.

The 2004 adaptation lost that. Oz traded in passive feminist theory for black comedy. Very black. We’re  looking soot here. It had its moments, but ultimately this version of Wives played funny against chilling. It works in fits and starts, but the end result is for lacking. A lot like that dolt in the class, Oz tries to ram down a point bathed in screwball and the terrifying message gets lost.

That might’ve been the point. This take on Wives has the barest scintilla of social commentary the original was awash with. Unsure why. What I took away from the Feminist Collective is that the magnifying glass on this sort of class war is sorely needed in this age of…well, everything in our media-saturated sub-existance, where the divides are greater than ever and why I can’t find a decent parking spot at Wegman’s and where the hell did the remote go and why am I so bothered by such trivial sh*t?

Where was I? We were talking about sexual politics? We were? Can’t recall. Must’ve been hip deep in checking my FaceBook feed. Anyone seen my wife lately?

Sorry. But here director Yoda had a prime slab of real estate to make a wave and opted instead to halt any social commentary and instead drench brain-dead audiences with coal-black humor lost on folks who don’t recognize coal-black humor. No shock I did notice, both within and without, still this Wives wasn’t all bad. Just not fleshed out very well. Like I said, it works in starts and sputters, but the endgame feels like us viewers missed something. Like coherence.

I had to give Oz props for keeping the funny, sometimes goofy atmosphere creepy. The air of “all is not as it seems” hangs over Wives like a fluffy pall. There’s a slow burn in effect here that the unknowing might find odd, if not unsettling. We’re so damned cynical these days…okay I’m so damned cynical that what spell was cast here wasn’t easily cast aside. Namely, was Oz trying to skewer general notions of polite gender equality? Or was he trying to satirize feminism’s shortcomings outright? Both questions feel out of joint here, since the director was just attempting a flick that was blackly funny.

Simply put, kinda, is that don’t look too deeply here, but keep the blinders off. Be aware of the message, but don’t buy into it. The movie’s kind of cartoonish, but was that part of said (passing) message? Take away what you would, but it’s hard to deny the sexual politics under the microscope here, even with a kooky delivery.

Speaking of delivery (and since Wives is also sort of a warped character study), our cast fits perfectly with the story. It’s in a rather square peg fashion; juxtaposing Alex Forrest against June Cleaver on PCP is a prime example of mixin’ the colors. Her Claire is f*cking creepy; actually almost the flipside of Fatal Attraction. She seduces with nice, a pastered-on smile and a hidden agendum so deep it’s painfully obvious. Another is letting stuttering Walken be the penultimate word on male rights/cult leader (then again, that may not be that much of a stretch). Kidman’s not known for comedy well, but take a nod to To Die For and you can jibe where her neurotic Joanna comes from. She does well here. Funnier than Eyes Wide Shut anyway.

There’s this degree of corniness that acts as an ideal portent. I’m talking foreshadowing here. All is too well in Stepford, the mirror reverse of Joanna’s Big City. And she resists almost every step. I must nod to her trepidation to take this idyll at face value. We the audience know at the outset that Stepford’s f*cked up, well before the Claire Clones come to the fore. The slow burn I spoke of is Joanna’s deconstructing the mystery and discovering/succumbing to the horrible truth. She doesn’t want to be a part of Stepford, she doesn’t want to mingle with these weird locals. The only person who smells of her lost cosmo, go-getter life is Bobbi who in turn becomes Sherlock to her Watson. Granted, Wives is a dark comedy, but it also has the air of a mystery, which is rather cool.

Again, we the audience know something’s rotten in Denmark, or at least this hamlet (ha!), but when Bobbi and Joanna take to task to getting the meat of the matter, it’s rather fun. Give Oz credit: he keeps the cards close to his chest, and when the big reveal hits it’s pretty…revealing (trick: Joanna looked better as a brunette despite Kidman’s natural strawberry blonde. It’s the small things). In a silly way, all of it casts a weird, big budget Addams Family ep aswirl with lo-fi feminist derring-do/how petulant, middle schooly guys can get when allowed to get. Quite the cocktail.

Sure. Weak social commentary, muddled by bleak humor, eventually screaming witch trial at demon technology (that’s not really a spoiler, it’s just a great endgame to a very demented game overall). However, Wives well indeed has it charms. It’s not a great flick, but that’s if you look for said Steinem-esque pits. Or ever spent and airless hour in a basement classroom with 40 pissy feminist philo women who just want to speak their minds. Only to have a single doosh continuously drag the needle across the record.

There’s a mean streak belying Wives, you bet. But it’s funny, vacant and rather dark. I’ve been lamenting the overt lack of social commentary in lieu of twisted jokes, but maybe that might me subversive enough in its own right to warrant Wives a nod at the horror Ross faced three decades hence. We have a mixed bag here, and you take away with what you wish based on your outlook.

Mine? I’ve read too much Ettinger and heard too much DiFranco to be unbiased. Is my worldview of feminist theory is already very sound? Very, but not valid. I don’t want to fall into the camp that wanker lorded over in my class, but then again I listened to him as much as the women. I guess I wouldn’t’ve appreciated Wives as well as I did without both sides of the coin.

But a doosh is a doosh, and I’d rather not consider his frame of mind to deeply. Either my mind would’ve turned to putty, my GPA would suffer (more than it did) or have a gang of solid women friends vote me off the island. But I kinda enjoyed Wives. Not for Mike Wellington’s awkward charm (or Walken’s awkward charm, for that matter) or the classic dark humor. No. I liked the somewhat objective platter, doubtless inviting my viewpoint via a chummy DiFranco show that I saw gratis.

I’d hate myself for denying that. I already harbor loathing on the other side of the bathroom door.

Strings out!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Take it for what it is in small doses: a black comedy wobbling on the edge of social commentary. You want feminist theory? Best go look elsewhere. Like a few castrating paragraphs from Adrienne Rich. Mike Wellington? Take…heed.

Stray Observations…

  • “…That was usually Hank.”
  • Saw that scream coming, and it was damn good, too.
  • As my kid regards my music collection she’d regard this film as “cringey.”
  • “Did you finish the laundry?” “No, I finished a chapter.” Snap.
  • “Ever since I was a little girl.”
  • Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. Okay. Shut up. And…
  • “She gives singles!”
  • You were right, Jill. Cringey.

Next Installment…

Hugh Jackman travels between time and space in search of The Fountain Of Youth. Turns out to be a tree. No wonder Ponce deLeon couldn’t find it; then again he thought Florida was an island.